Saying “gay rights and freedom of speech” can co-exist, a federal judge Friday sided with a Christian photographer in ruling the city of Louisville, Ky., cannot force her to work at same-sex weddings.
The case involved a Christian photographer, Chelsey Nelson, who owns a studio that specializes in photographing, editing and blogging about weddings. She sued Louisville in 2019, claiming its anti-discrimination law would require her to photograph a same-sex wedding and thus violate her First Amendment rights.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Justin R. Walker sided with Nelson and issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing the law against her in her photography and her blogging.
Nelson will likely succeed in her lawsuit, he ruled. Alliance Defending Freedom represented her.
“America is wide enough for those who applaud same-sex marriage and those who refuse to,” he wrote. “The Constitution does not require a choice between gay rights and freedom of speech. It demands both. … Forcing citizens to express ideas ‘contrary to their deepest convictions’ is ‘always demeaning.’ It doesn’t matter if most people agree with the expression the government compels. Free thought ‘includes both the right to speak freely’ and to say nothing at all.”
The city, he wrote, is “attempting to compel religious speech at the core of the First Amendment.” Photography is a form of art, he asserted, and art is speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Miller quoted the Supreme Court’s 2015 same-sex marriage Obergefell decision, which said affirmatively of religious freedom, “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
“We would do well to heed them,” he wrote of the high court’s comments. “They affirm that the same Constitution held by Obergefell to guarantee the right of same-sex couples to marry also protects religious and philosophical objections to same-sex marriage. That our society has largely accepted same-sex marriage ‘is all the more reason to protect the First Amendment rights of those who wish to voice a difference view.’ Although a sometimes ‘hazardous freedom,’ free speech is a ‘basis of our national strength.’”
The case requires Americans to “confront a larger question” at the “heart of our nation’s promise,” Walker wrote: “Is America wide enough both for you and ‘a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours’?
“Just as gay and lesbian Americans ‘cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,’ neither can Americans ‘with a deep faith that requires them to do things passing legislative majorities might find unseemly or uncouth,” Walker, who was nominated by President Trump, wrote.
Walker seemed to address critics of his opinion when he said the decision “is not a license to discriminate”
“In Louisville, since 1999 and still today, Marriott cannot refuse a room to a same-sex couple. McDonald’s cannot deny a man dinner simply because he is gay. Neither an empty hotel room, nor a Big Mac, is speech,” he wrote.
ADF senior counsel Jonathan Scruggs applauded the decision.
“Just like every American, photographers and writers like Chelsey should be free to peacefully live and work according to their faith without fear of unjust punishment by the government,” Scruggs said. “The court was right to halt enforcement of Louisville’s law against Chelsey while her case moves forward. She serves everyone. She simply cannot endorse or participate in ceremonies she objects to, and the city has no right to eliminate the editorial control she has over her own photographs and blogs.”
Walker was confirmed this year by the Senate to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He is awaiting his commission.
Photo courtesy: ©Alliance Defending Freedom
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.